Forget Legacy-Building: Iraq is NO Japan Mr President
January 01, 2006
Forget Legacy-Building: Iraq is NO Japan Mr President
The Washington Note
David Sanger has a stinging article in the New York Times today basically ridiculing President Bush's notions of Iraq-related legacy building. He suggests that the President's recent actions on everything from Supreme Court appointments to rhetoric about democratizing Iraq are designed to get historians to see his presidency as an FDR-type reign rather than that of a Franklin Pierce.
Sanger's piece indicates that either David has finally just had it with the White House and is ready to forfeit his White House spot to someone else -- or he, like so many others, senses real weakness in the Bush White House team and sees this as the time to begin emphasizing that the wannabe emperor really has no clothes on.
Sanger's critique is hard-hitting and would have been practically impossible for him to write three years ago without serious retribution from Karl Rove and company. One would hope that writers of David Sanger's stature would always write boldly and candidly -- and Sanger generally has, particularly on White House foreign policy and nuclear negotiations missteps -- but writing about the White House and the President is also walking a tight-rope between the public's right to know and the President's willingness and obligation to be transparent.
But bravo for today's piece.
Sanger goes after Bush for feeling that there is a "stuff of legacy" in America's Iraq invasion and occupation.
BEFORE he retreated behind the fences of his ranch here to ring out a bruising year, President Bush made it clear that even with three years to go, he already regards his presidency as a big one in the sweep of American history.
He insists that his real motive in conducting the war in Iraq is to democratize one of the least democratic corners of the earth. He regularly quotes Harry Truman, who rebuilt Japan and Germany while remaking American national security policy from the ground up. Several of his speeches have deliberately included Churchillian echoes about never surrendering to terrorists and achieving total victory, along with made-for-television imagery to drive home the message.
Mr. Bush, of course, is trying to give larger meaning to a war whose unpopularity dragged down his presidency last year. But at moments he often seems to also be talking directly to historians, tilting the pinball machine of presidential legacy. It may not be too early: the year 2006, many in the White House believe, will cement the story line of the Bush presidency for the ages. And there is growing acknowledgment, perhaps premature, that his standing will rise or fall with the fate of Iraq.
Maybe so, but presidential legacies are complicated - a point proven by Truman himself, whose reputation has aged so well that it is almost forgotten that he left office mired in the intelligence failures, early mistakes and the ultimate muddle of the Korean War.
"They have learned to love the Truman analogies in this White House because it's a reminder that legacies are built out of events that happen long after most presidents leave office, when we see things through the lens of later events and one or two ideas look like big turning points," said Richard Norton Smith, who heads the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill. Only in retrospect do we regard Truman's decision to integrate the armed forces as a precursor to the civil rights movement, something he did while containing Stalin and establishing NATO.
These days, you can almost hear this administration struggling to find its own combination of domestic and foreign programs - Supreme Court appointments and education initiatives, tinkering with domestic liberties in the name of facing down foreign enemies - that makes the difference between an F.D.R. and a Franklin Pierce.
The entire article is worth reading, but pay particular attention to the comments by MIT's brilliant Japan historian John Dower:
To some historians, spinning the meaning of victory seems an exercise in futility. "It's ridiculous talk," John Dower, the historian who has chronicled war propaganda and written the definitive history of the American occupation of Japan. "People know what victory looks like," he said, and are unlikely to adopt the president's definitions.
But what truly sets Mr. Dower off are Mr. Bush's comparisons between rebuilding Iraq and the postwar rebuilding of Japan. He and others note that Japan was religiously unified with some history of parliamentary government and a bureaucracy ready to work as soon as the conflict ended.
Like Dower, I have long been irritated and incensed by the President's comparisons of the occupation of Iraq with that of Japan. Dower notes that the basic components of the Japanese state were more intact and also had a structure that could be used to manage the government and generate a representative parliamentary assembly more readily than in Iraq.
But if we gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt for a moment -- at the beginning of the conflict -- there were many things that the occupation of Japan should have told us. First and perhaps most importantly, a large new class of political and economic winners needed to be quickly generated because of America's presence. In Japan, we accomplished this with farmers via land reform. This might have been possible with some formula of resource-sharing or dividends from Iraq's oil wealth with every working age Iraqi citizen. Instead, the U.S. pushed buckets of money into the clutches of self-aggrandizing political elites, like Ahmed Chalabi -- and did nothing for Iraq's average citizens.
The Occupation would still have been wrong-headed in my view, but there were ways at the very beginning to get an occupation right. We seemed to check off all the steps in getting an occupation wrong.
The other practical reality that America's Japan experience should have taught us -- and about which John Dower and other historians on the Japan Occupation have written -- is that some of the early calculations about political winners and losers can be wrong. It's important to be able to maintain the option to back up and reverse course....